by Chris Davis
I hate to disagree with Thurston Moore, but contrary to the Sonic Youth guitarist's bold assertion, The Memphis Goons are not a “fantastic American rock-and-roll story.” The Goons, whose newest collection of songs PEPPO is now available for download at iTunes, were a smart, exceptionally talented ’60s/’70s-era rock-and-roll band that nobody knew or cared about. In other words, their story is fairly typical, and it goes something like this: Suburban kids make fantastic, ahead-of-its time (and/or unfashionably retro) music in their parents' garages and basements and nobody notices.
Nearly 30 years after the tracks were originally recorded, Teenage BBQ, the Goons' first collection of lo-fi home recordings, were released on Shangri-La, a small independent Memphis record label. Still, other than a few critics and obscurity collectors, nobody paid much attention. Well, except for Robert Hull, the former Creem contributor and executive producer for Time-Life Music who listed the Memphis Goons as having created the third-best garage-rock sounds ever — after the Kingsmen and the Sonics — in an essay on “original punks” that was collected in the Rolling Stone-published book Alt-Rock-a-Rama. Hull, an original punk who sometimes uses the aliases “Robot Hull” and "Xavier Tarpit", grew up in Whitehaven, a Memphis suburb, and is a founding member of the band.
“Teenage BBQ was actually assembled ... from 50 percent of our recordings,” Hull said in a recent email. “It's too long, BUT the packaging is quite the masterpiece.”
Music collectors and audiophiles get excited about the Goons because they took up the mantle of great bands like The Nightcaps a decade after the British Invasion clobbered American garage rock. At the same time, they also seem to be pioneering an eclectic lo-fi pop sound that would be championed decades later by bands like Sebadoh, Guided by Voices, and Pavement.
“Maggie Ann” the standout track on Teenage BBQ also predicts the rise of No Depression Americana by taking the teenage dreamworld described by the Everly Brothers in “Wake Up, Little Susie” and plopping it down in the middle of some rambling but infectious Hombres tune. Nobody heard any of these recordings until 1996, so it didn't actually influence anybody directly, though Hull certainly became an important chronicler and critic of the rock-and-roll era. So strictly speaking it's not “important” music (and thank goodness, right?). But for garage and indie rock fans who don't care about production values, Teenage BBQ is essential. PEPPO is leaner and just as promising.
“I have hundreds of hours of tapes still to go through, and that's why I hope this works, because I would like for all of the songs to go online and be available for the universe,” Hull says of the possibility for future digital-only releases. “If I had the time & money, I would just create a website and share, and that could happen.”
Shangri-La founder Sherman Willmott, who once (happily) described Teenage BBQ as his “worst seller ever” says he's “very excited about unleashing more Goons on the universe!”
According to Hull, this won't be the last we hear from him or the original Goons either. He's currently assembling a Christian album, a cover/oldies release, and more "originally conceived but never produced" Goons albums like PEPPO.
“At present, I'm working on a very strange opus along with my partner Vanilla Frog, that's so out there I think even Thurston Moore would gasp,” Hull says. “It's gonna be called either The White Album: A Sequel, Pet Sounds: The Prequel, or Let it Bleed: The Outtakes.”
Cutting to the chase: The Memphis Goons' story is unexceptional in almost every way. Their music is another story entirely.